Category Archives: Alaska

The Story of Balto is a Tribute to All Dogs


By Linda Cole

Every now and then an exceptional dog rises above expectations. Balto was such a dog, who despite difficult odds guided a life saving dog sled team into Nome, Alaska in 1925 after a diphtheria epidemic threatened to wipe out the entire town of 1,400 residents. What kind of dog was Balto, and how was he able to complete his journey?

Central Park in New York City is a long way from Alaska, but it’s where you can find a life size statue of Balto. His nose, paws and face are worn and shiny from children touching the statue, and it’s the most visited and admired statue in the park. He stands as a tribute to a heroic group of dogs and mushers who braved an Alaskan winter storm in a relay race against time.

There is some confusion as to Balto’s breed. Some say he was an Alaskan Malamute, others claim he was a Siberian Husky. However, he was owned by Leonhard Seppala who raised and raced Siberian Huskies and there’s no mention of him ever owning Alaskan Malamutes. Balto was born in the Chukchi Inuit tribe and came from their stock of Siberian dogs. Described as a jet black Siberian Husky with a white bib and white socks, he was born in 1919 and died in 1933.

Seppala didn’t believe Balto was good breeding stock or a good lead dog, so the dog was neutered when he was 6 months old and delegated to pulling heavy freight sleds for the Pioneer Gold Mining Company Seppala worked for. Looks can be deceiving, and this was definitely the case with Balto. Seppala knew dogs, but he misread Balto’s potential. Not a perfect specimen of a Siberian Husky, he was barrel chested with a boxy looking body that made his front legs look bowed, and he didn’t look like a racing dog. However, he turned out to be an able, strong and intelligent dog. He proved his worth by safely delivering the serum and saving the lives of the rest of the dog team and his musher, Gunnar Kaasen, who used Balto as his lead dog during the 1925 serum run to Nome.

Heading his dogs into a wicked, cold night with a -70 wind chill, Kaasen began his portion of the run which was to end at a town named Solomon. The howling blizzard was so fierce, he couldn’t see the dogs harnessed closest to his sled, and he was 2 miles past the town when he realized he had missed it. Kaasen pressed on to the next stop where a fresh team of dogs and musher would be waiting to take the hand off of the precious serum to its final destination. When he arrived, the musher was sleeping and the dogs weren’t ready to go, so Kaasen decided to continue on instead of losing time that Nome residents were running out of.

Dead tired and cold with frostbite on his hands, the musher and dogs pulled into Nome at 5:30 in the morning, five and a half days after the serum run began. The only words he was able to muster were about Balto, “Damn fine dog,” he said as he fell beside the dog at the front of the team. They had run 57 miles in bone chilling cold, barely able to see through blinding snow and completed a 674 mile rescue mission along the only route possible—the mail route. Because the weather was so bad, sled dogs were the town’s only hope.

Balto knew nothing of his important mission; he ran because that was his job. He was part of a team of dogs and one man who drove through the night, depending on each other in weather that wasn’t fit for man or beast. Balto proved that he had the fortitude, intelligence and courage to guide six other dogs and the sled.

A Siberian Husky can tolerate extreme cold (minus 50 to minus 75) as well as warmer weather because their double layered coat helps keep them warm and cool. They are an intelligent, tenacious, independent, strong and fast breed capable of picking safe paths over snowy trails and frozen streams. Balto was able to stay on the trail despite whiteout conditions because he knew the trail and he used his instincts. At one point, he stopped shy of a not completely frozen lake, saving the entire team and serum from disaster.

Balto was never used as a lead dog after the run. Even though he proved himself a strong, determined and capable lead dog, the attention he and Kaasen received from the press made the other mushers, including Seppala, jealous. A taxidermist at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History stuffed and mounted Balto after his death where he is still today. His original lead is laid across his back.

Read more articles by Linda Cole

The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.

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The Courage of Dogs: Iditarod Serum Run of 1925


By Linda Cole

The Iditarod serum run of 1925 put man and dog smack dab into the middle of nature’s fury. Both mushers and dogs had to stay on their toes and keep their wits about them to survive their mission. Without hesitation for their safety, these men made what was thought by some to be a foolish and impossible run on the only trail that linked Nome to the lower part of Alaska. But because of their compassion, grit, trust and knowledge in the ability of their dogs to persist through difficult and at times dangerous conditions, a handful of men were able to save many lives that could have been lost.

Twenty men and 150 dogs took turns inching their way along the mail route as each man handed their precious cargo off to the next musher and team of dogs. They ran 674 miles in five and a half days and safely delivered serum to Nome, Alaska. This small town had been hit with a diphtheria epidemic that threatened the entire town which is only 130 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Most of the relay was done in the dark which makes the Iditarod serum run even more amazing.

Because a major winter storm had developed, the only feasible mode of transportation was by dog sled. Racing along the one established trail, the mail route, the first team headed into the storm. Anyone who lives in an area where wind chills can drop to -50 to -90 can appreciate the determination and grit it took for the men and their dogs to set out on their mission of mercy in one of Alaska’s mighty storms.

The names of the 20 mushers who ran the Iditarod serum run have been recorded, but only some of the names of the dogs are known. Balto, Togo and Fritz have been recorded for posterity and are considered the most famous, but each dog had a name and a role in the success of the run. Twenty lead dogs persisted through howling winds, which at times were gale force, frigid temperatures and blinding snow. Each dog had earned their musher’s trust in their ability and confidence in their instincts to lead.

The lead dog steers the sled and sets an example for all the other dogs to follow. It’s his responsibility to keep the other team members safe. A good lead dog is strong, confident, intelligent and capable of following commands. Good instincts and being familiar with the trail they ran on enabled the dogs to stay on track and avoid any serious accidents that could have spelled disaster if the serum had been lost or any of the vials broken.

Leonhard Seppala was in Nome as the serum run began. He was considered to be the premier dog musher of his time with the best dogs. Togo was his lead dog and Fritz is believed to have run either beside Togo or directly behind him. Seppala planned on taking a risky shortcut across the unpredictable ice packs off shore on Norton Sound as he headed south to meet up with the relay team heading north to Nome. Because of Togo’s experience and the trust Leonhard had in his dog, Togo skillfully lead the team of 20 dogs safely over the shifting and breaking ice pack twice—once heading south to meet the others and then on his return trip with the medicine.

Togo was 12 years old at the time of the serum run which is a testament to his stamina and desire. On top of that, Seppala’s team ran farther than any of the other teams in the relay. He and his dogs began their trip in Nome, the very place where the serum was heading. Norton Sound was considered to be the most dangerous part of the entire run because the ice pack was breaking up and only the best driver and dogs would be able to navigate around the cracking ice. Seppala, Togo and the rest of his team ran a total of 260 miles. They covered 84 miles in one day running at 8 mph, in the dark.

Balto and his team ran the last leg of the relay and is the dog most people remember. Every dog and man pulled their own weight in bone chilling weather conditions that threatened the success of the run at every mile. The story of the Iditarod serum run of 1925 chronicles how man and dogs trusted in the abilities and instincts of each other to survive in the wilds of Alaska. It’s a story that is important to remember and one that needs to be retold from time to time because it’s a story about the courage of dogs and men.

Read more articles by Linda Cole

The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.